The Hall

I will never forget the first time I saw that hotel I was to learn the meaning of pain from. I think of it the way I suppose my favorite writer as a boy, Stephen King, thought of the places of evil from where he began his tales. The mansion in “Salem’s Lot or the hotel in “The Shining”[1]. Places that should be left undisturbed by the young writer, but which our curiosity qualifies we can do nothing but postpone the eventual moment…the one where we know we are in deep and cannot see the way out. Truthfully? Places like that have nothing, on an internationally acclaimed kitchen during dinner rushes, at least where terror is concerned.

The Hall; those massive pillars guarding its pristine façade, strangled by the vines and shrubbery whose perfect edges were maintained like pedicures of a god by a dozen migrant workers. They were only seen by us early arriving employees of course, early in the morning, before any of the clientele would be perturbed by their hard-worked bodies.  The car’s out front were often rentals for celebrities or other members of the higher order- not usually from my end of town; in fact our town was pretty middle class aside from a few wealthy families, so let’s just say it- outsiders. I, like most, immediately skipped past the reality I would be washing the shit left over on plates of the diners, and immediately entered the world of fantasy where I ruled over this place like a King in his castle. All of this day dreaming would of course be put to the burner soon enough with my first encountering of…The Dutch-Afrikaner.

I am too afraid even now to divulge. What if it’s like the childhood Bloody Mary or that movie “Candyman[2]” -what if this recollection somehow, however haphazard or hazy, proves a recipe for some incantation? And suddenly in a flash of greasy smoke, brandishing his weapon of choice, the monster comes for me again?

I can see him now, big greasy madman grin from ear to ear, sweat pouring off him like condensation escaping from a smelly cheese, and those silver, smiling evil tongs like a mouth of open teeth. For some time I look at a pair again the same after that day. My groin almost hurts a little in fact …like those veterans who wake up feeling around for itches on long-ago amputated limbs. It’s not often a kitchen utensil can be compared to such things. But I assure you, with absolute confidence, galvanized now by more than a decade’s separation- the fear is quite real. And 100 percent pure, truth. The only time I was ever comfortable was a few years later, when I was working with the crazy British chef who was a punk rocker above all else and loved to curse on the Queen. And I had the tongs.

I can’t quite face it yet though; so let’s take a roll call of the other players in this mad little play. There was a chef for every major country when I first started at The Hall – an Irishmen- let’s call ‘em Gerard named Tom who worked salads, an Italian who did sides, a Greek woman who did a bit of everything and of course a Frenchman who provided endless desserts and of course insults to all around him, sprinkled excessively with each opening of the oven he called a mouth. I hated French as a subject in school, granted, but this was my first experience hating a person because of it. Finally the two men who most frightened me – my Chef and Sous Chef – the former a Brit.

To describe him in action is to depict a savage animal in captivity, clawing at his captors with efficient and timed movement, precise movements too perfect to be anything but natural or artistic mimicry. I thought up until that point in my youth, that a kitchen was a place for the civil, restrained, synchronized or timed even – appropriation of culinary creation. And nothing more. I had no idea the fresh hell that awaited not just me as the over glorified (quickly salaried) “Dishpig”.

And the next week, then the boy’s started in on me with the endless jokes, the fish heads impaled on the nozzle-gun and sink-spout. The one’s tucked into the Hobart so they almost bite you. The fucking hot pans, able to catch you off guard even when they tell you, “Hot!” prior to dropping them headlong into the soupy, hot and greasy mess that replaces itself in new, even more grotesquely messy amounts, no matter how fast you move, then switches its assault and begins to mount, likewise manically in fashion, in the form of the customer’s dishes. This is the single greatest delusion any young boy ever, ever suffered from- that a dishwashers job is anything near in sphere or circumference to that which they knew of in suburban domesticity, babysitting or shoplifting for comic shops. I mean working.

My first real wound wasn’t to so fatal. I was leisurely cleaning a Mandoline- tricky fuckers actually, because they look deceptively safe. It is not a matter of cleaning an actual knife – but rather a stainless steel plate with a clever addition – a razor-thin blade subtly protrudes around halfway down. The nick was all I felt, enough to recoil from, but by then the damage was well done. One time fluke I figure- not like I burned my hand or something. I did manage to go the next 6 weeks without ever meeting the mean end of the Mandolin again. How could I have, every time it smirked at me I winced back in shame for having cried at least a tear of panic-yelp into her secret slit?

The next one was just the first of many many many pan-related burns to come, and was not so easy to avoid in the future since really, the better or faster the pig of dishes? The more likely you will reach into the abyss, to yank out dirt from the clogging-sink-drain’s whirlpool, and lift with that skinniest arm, scarred up nicely by now, and yank a handful of mush that was once the remnant of a 10, 000 dollar night. In my guts, too,  some nights were remnants of the evening; ostrich egg shell, pheasant breast procured from the occasionally generous…Him. And so much more. The wounds were earned and bettered with many great meals. Oysters, Cheesy Mushroom Risotto, Champagne Sorbet. I learned to love food the same instant I learned to hate the industry to which I was at the bottom- or more rightly, I learned to despise being at the bottom.  Which is when it happened; I joined them somehow. The core group of chef’s, of which only two were left out  – the Head chef not because he was a British snob but because he was Head Chef and it was customary(like in the military, the reigning officer cannot be seen to socialize with his officers), and because the Frenchman was too much a cunt for anyone to tolerate for more than a service if that,( and was essentially relegated to the same subhuman status as the waiters who were also flown from France and boarded just off the property in some building owned by The Hall). But somehow after the incident I guess…they thought I was somewhere above a Frenchman and a Waiter. But the incident itself was enough insurance against my ever forgetting…my Place.

Just as well to set the table and have you dig into these alluded to, ever hinted at, horrors show then. It was not my dishwashing skills that lacked, nor was it my scrawniness that betrayed me to his eye, as to suggest perhaps I was easy prey. No. My doom? Was sounded by the seemingly Least important single utensil in the entire building. A Tasting Spoon.

Morne von Antwerp. There, I have said it. The chef who rode that kitchen each night like a mad-cow infected Rodeo Bull- he sweat and slaved under a thermometer, the main courses were all on him, and he wouldn’t hesitate to point with…those tongs…to the thermometer as you attempted to weave and wobble through the slick, end of night greased floors, to gather each stations piling treasure trove of dirty everything. Dirty cutting boards, inserts, knives, and yes… Tasting Spoons.

Still in my early training stage, I had nevertheless managed to be myself in one regard: I was mouthy as all hell, quick with comebacks, and too young and proud and hooked on the laughter I got from sarcastic remarks to ever think of their consequences. And so it came to pass that when a chef made a remark about my skinniness, or my red hair or dirty appearance (it took at least a month to master the art of not acting like a magnet to the every scrap of dirt in my frail orbit), that I responded in kind with my humorous attempt to stand up for myself. This worked on every person there- except the Afrikaner. Although at first he chuckled, there was a moment when I know I had done something he had forbidden, and all the laughs from the others would not save me. Back track to my first or second shift after the coward jumped ship, when Chef had to remind me, just once, yet spoken as though for the thousandth in that Brit air of authority to “Nevah, evah walk behind me without saying BEHIND!!!, to which I elfishly crawled away, forever in total fear of Chef. How stupid of me to think the captain was the most frightening thing lurking beneath the Sally and The Pass: Morne “the claw” von Antwerp was about to teach me a lesson in knowing my place, and his.

“Boy! Come Hea-ah!” (He refused to learn any names for the first month, so many youth having stayed only a few shifts before going to take a bag of trash to the dumpster out back, they never came back). I came slipping and sliding over, the floors greasy not because of the lack of prestige, the kitchen was 3 star at least, but because I was a terrible mop-hand. “What the fack is this, aye?” (He was the only real Dutch-African I had met – but the movie Power of One had instilled a deep fear of that accent- brining to mind the ‘coppah’ who beat Morgan Freemans character to death for talking back to him).

In Morne’s fist was a single, silver spoon, glistening and shining in my eyes off the light of the fiery stove he was always stationed at. Glaring at me I hesitated too long in giving the obvious answer, and he filled me in rather than wait out my terror. “Dis? Is moi facking spoon, you hee-ah? Now. Ivery dai You WILL make shure I ‘ave 5 facking spoons, good? I don’t care about the rest of deese faking clowns if they say give me spoons if they get spoons or not! But at night you make sure in the morning I Have My  FACKING SPOONS, OI, BOY?” then, all the while having the deadly tongs in his other fist, he brought them close to my sweating face and snapped them shut violently, punctuating the motion with these foreboding words “Otha-wise?? I will clamp down on your facking bawls boy! And rip them from your skinny facking legs! Oi! Jua’un-dahr-stand!?!?!” I immediately respond in a moment of boot-camp, knee jerk reaction. Pure Instinct. “Yes Sir!”.

Next day. His face turned red as cinder. He couldn’t find a spoon and looked over to see the kinder Chef Oscar with two. My jewels became fodder for his silver death-clamp. My pearls were squeezed and I hit the ground fast. I hadn’t seen him! He’d been too quick! Come up from behind, given me that terrible crushing experience from the job I learned to love thereafter. Love-hate? You betcha. Nightmares have a way of growing on the young writer. They become in themselves, a kind of future fodder, as you see.

Just the sight of those silver utensils…brings a painful remembrance. A smirk. And a thankful sigh, my last service ended more than a decade ago at The Hall. [3]

[1] Alternatively, Amityville

[2] Or the equally frightening Omen or Exorcist franchises.

[3] I intend with this story to draw on my being a horror/film fan and young writer, formatted as youth-confessional; a string of stories of which will compliment and fill out my characterization of self. Steven King is not merely used then as a universally recognized symbol for horror, but also meant to evoke the working class sort of writer I am. King’s book On Writing speaks to something I will reiterate- he may not be literary by academic standards- but his work still has all the demarcations of craft; theme, style and ingenuity.

The image of the workers sheering the hedges, along with the various incidences of blades, tongs and other instruments as symbols of fear, are equally tied into class conflict and arguments of what constitutes craft and what art etc. Morne and the kitchen also function as allegorical to horror tropes like the Underworld and the Minotaur or even the general “other”- he is foreign to me, he is larger than life, savage, and he is the one chef I cannot “pass”. It is the terrifying and wonderful that is meant to be conveyed; what attracts Marlowe as a boy to those blank parts on maps.

I also but only in a feint way since this is part of the overall collections theme- intended to produce something like a Bildungsroman effect, in which I begin my working life as a sort of young person, who invariably must face outside evils but equally those of the soul, in order to eventually reenter society as a writer. (Fingers Crossed)   An additional and obvious image of the racist general from the film “Power of One” will also be later reflected in a story about my reading history called “X”, but really would only be powerful if you had in fact seen it.